Covering Putin’s War, Our Future and the American Fifth Column
The merging of our enemies, foreign and domestic.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Last August, I wrote a column about how we were entering a new cold war with China. That seems at least as true today, and I stand by the points I made over the summer about how the press should approach that story. But it now appears that the emerging struggle is more nearly one between the US and its post-Second World War allies on one side and a new Axis of an emerging China and a reactionary Russia on the other. Thus, for instance, the significance of the Chinese refusal to thwart or even oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine, perhaps with an eye toward a future Chinese move on Taiwan.
I want now to try to point to two additional critical elements of context I think the press needs to bear in mind in this evolving contest. Both concern trends in our own society.
Unipolarity is long since over
The first is that the new cold war is dramatically underlining what has seemed apparent to many at least since the failure of the US’s own war of choice, our invasion of Iraq, and our 15 year refusal to accept the limits of our intervention in Afghanistan. This is that the unipolar American moment of 1989-2003 is over, and that the US is a power in decline—perhaps not in absolute terms, but certainly relative to the rest of the world, especially China, and also in our ability to command the policies of our own alliance. This is true no matter which party holds power in this country.
It is critical also, both for journalists and our readers, that we make clear how the situation of our own time differs from the past, as well as how it is similar. American decline, for instance, is different from the decline of the British Empire during the period between Munich (1938) and Suez (1956), when a friendly power—the US—was rising in defense of largely similar values and priorities. This was most dramatically clear from a point Winston Churchill made in the dark days after Dunkirk in 1940, when he insisted that, even if Britain faltered, “the New World, with all its power and might, [would] step forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.” There is no rising power to supplant America today within the democratic world, and its allies remain just that, albeit with stronger voices at the family table.
Gary Oldman as Churchill, reminding us that declining powers need not lack for inspiration. (Lots of errors in the subtitles, for who knows what reason.)
Yet even as the US remains the leader of its sphere, limitations on its freedom of action multiply. Examples range from the problematic nature of sanctions which might cause China to disengage from global frameworks, weakening everyday American influence on such systems as banking, to the increasingly important fact that, in a world of globalized business, the two halves of the historic American “military-industrial complex” are increasingly in tension with each other, with multi-national corporations hedging their bets even at the cost of US security and democratic freedoms.
The second point is the fundamental one that not all—perhaps not most—aggression is the product of strength, but may instead be a marker of incipient weakness. So far in Russia’s war on Ukraine, this point has, happily, come through clearly in much of the coverage.
Where I think we may, so far, be missing a critical story is in the coverage of what this means in our own country’s politics. While opposition to neo-Soviet revanchism has been widespread, there has also emerged what I think can fairly be described as the most significant Fifth Column in America since the Civil War.
The phrase Fifth Column derives from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s, when one of fascist leader Francisco Franco’s commanders reportedly said that he had four columns of troops marching on Madrid, aided by a fifth column undermining the loyalist government from within. In our own history, the Royalists/Tories during our Revolution and the Copperheads during the Civil War played similar roles. In 1864, during a moment of doubt, Lincoln observed wisely that Gen. George McClellan, the Democratic nominee opposing his re-election, was seeking the presidency “on such ground that he can not possibly save [the Union.]”
There have been anti-war movements since that time, some in advance of fighting (especially before 1940), some during conflicts (Vietnam and Iraq— both of which were eventually successful in essentially forcing a conclusion to those efforts). But none in a century and a half have in a serious way appeared to advocate the defeat of the US or its interests.
In recent weeks that has changed. From Donald Trump to Tucker Carlson to GOP Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene we are witnessing—if only we will acknowledge it—the emergence of an American Fifth Column, cheering on an unprovoked attack by a dictatorship on a democracy, seeking to shore up its own political weakness by undermining our national interests.
Trump—still, by all measures, the leading choice for his party’s next presidential nomination-- called Putin’s moves “smart,” “very smart,” “savvy,” even “genius,” and said “he’s going to go in and be a peacemaker.” Carlson, enabled by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, calls the Ukrainian issue “a border dispute,” attacked those who revile Putin, earned himself a place on Russian TV, complete with subtitles, and told his audience he was “rooting” for Russia. Last weekend. Greene and Gosar appeared at a conference of avowed American racists and anti-Semites where the crowd applauded the Russians and chanted “Putin, Putin.” Just last week, before apparently being caught by surprise by the Russian invasion our own government had been openly predicting for some time, former Trump secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo said Putin “knows how to use power. And we should respect that.”
Nothing like any of this was ever said by any leading American political figure of Hitler or Tojo or Kim Il-sung or bin Laden or any postwar Soviet leader.
Since 2016, I have thought that the key phrase in Donald Trump’s appeal has been his repeated invocation of a “last chance.” As we observed his time in office, it became ever clearer that, domestically, this was thinly veiled code for a “last chance” for an America run for the benefit of whites, even as nearly 40% of the country, and most of the population under 20, is not white.
In foreign affairs, “last chance,” it now appears, seems another call for a diminished and hobbled nation masquerading as strong, one that aligns itself with might against right.
That is one of the larger meanings of the war on Ukraine. It is a war on democracy, drawing both the active and tacit support of democracy’s enemies, not only abroad but at home. That is the way it should be reported.
Thanks for reading Second Rough Draft! Subscribe for free.